NYICFF 2013: From Up On Poppy Hill

The NYICFF was over the moon for their screenings of From Up On Poppy Hill, but I had a much more dubious reaction. After all, Goro Miyazaki left a terrible first impression on me with Tales from Earthsea so I wasn’t going in with anything akin to expectations for his newest work. Still, a tiny bit of my heart was hoping he’d redeem himself; I love a good comeback story!

I’m happy to report that From Up On Poppy Hill was able to surprise me over and over again.

Recently Joel White from Fast Karate for the Gentlemen was mentioning on twitter that Studio Ghibli seems to get nothing but hate recently. I have to say that we will just have agree to disagree on the merits of Ponyo as I saw it as a very weak work with some moments of brilliance. But thankfully Joel did not bring up Tales from Earthsea. While Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo might have been weak Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea was just a train wreck. It made Goro’s name mud in the eyes of many anime fans. So I had fairly low expectations with From Up On Poppy Hill.

But much like The Secret World of Arrietty it seems that Studio Ghibli is recently been releasing movies to prove that Joel’s theory that the idea that Studio Ghibli is over is a bit premature. From Up On Poppy Hill did quite a bit to make me reassess Goro Miyazaki as a director. Do I think he has hit the heights that his father had in his heyday? No. But he is gone from a director I would actively avoid to someone who I am genuinely interested in. If his movies can remain at this level or even improve I think he actually has a pretty bright future in front of him.

Umi Matsuzaki is a responsible young woman whose family owns boarding house. Everyday she raises signal flags before going off to school which makes her a local celebrity when it is mentioned in a poem in the school newspaper. But the school newspaper gets even more involved with her life when she is dragged into a fight between the school and the boys of Latin Quarter building which houses several clubs including the newspaper. What does the author of the poem Shun Kazama have to do with Umi? As they start to fall in love are there some secrets in their past that might tear them apart.

Is it just me or have we been seeing a lot of 1960s Japan in anime lately?

No matter the where or when, we’ve come to expect Ghibli films to look gorgeous. Poppy Hill really excels in the crowded marketplace as well as the lighting when Umi and Shun ride down the hill one evening. Or the haphazard streets of Tokyo they wander. The ocean and boats views will leave a mark in your mind as well. But nothing was more impressive than all the details of the jam-packed rooms of the Latin Quarter. Literal decades of stuff fill the rooms and halls and when the kids decide to fix it up, it becomes “like an episode of Hoarders” (thanks Hisui for that).

This movie is dripping with nostalgia from 1960s Japan. It revels in a Japan that has finally really started to recover from WWII and the occupation and its making a place for itself. Life has a simple charm and the bonds of community are strong. Yokohama is being built up but there is still a strong sense of nature in the city. Students are passionate and intelligent and fight for their passions. They maybe chaotic but they march forward in a loud and proud manner.

It is certainly an idealized vision of the 1960s Japan. It’s not exactly Japan’s Happy Days but there is a good deal of romanticism going on in the film. But overall that is unimportant as that upbeat feeling really lends a sense of wonder to the setting. You don’t go to the Renaissance fair to experience the grittiness of the era. You do to experience a the past as it should have been. And From Up On Poppy Hill lives in this misty water colored past and tells a turbulent but touching love story there.

The cast had loads of charm which made the developing friendship and eventual rift between Umi and Shun so stomach-knotting.

Umi is holding everything together at the boarding house. Throwing herself into the everyday keeps Umi distracted from dwelling too much on her missing father and her overseas mother. When she meets Shun she starts thinking about herself more and in this case it isn’t a bad thing.

Shun is tough not to like as he makes quite an impression jumping off the roof of a building! His political and rebellious student spirit is very much of the time. Shun has an easiness about him but in moments of quite you can tell he too is suffering from an odd parental situation.

So when Umi and Shun come together, something about it feels very natural.

This film had some really great dialogue dealing with the crazy guys in the Latin Quarter. A lot of their nerdiness felt genuine which is actually kind of rare in media. There were some good laughs from all the antics surrounding the dilapidated building.

The writers of The Big Bang Theory should be forced to watch all the scenes with the guys from the Latin Quarter to perhaps learn who to write nerds that don’t make actual nerds want to strange you. Actually scratch that the writers of The Big Bang Theory should be shot and then the next guys who write for the show should be forced to watch this movie so they don’t end up like the last group. Is it the most accurate and True-to-Life™ depiction of nerds? No. But it is somewhat genuine and more importantly a generally amusing version of nerds. And that is what you want in a feel good period piece like this.

After seeing Tales from Earthsea and now From Up On Poppy Hill, I’m wondering if perhaps Goro Miyazaki’s strength is not meant to be fantastical emotional journeys like his father, but instead more simple and character driven stories which still fit in just fine with the Ghibli family.

This wasn’t just a good Goro Miyazaki movie, this was a good Studio Ghibli movie. And heck, I didn’t even mind the dub!

I feel I have to bring up that they do touch upon a hot button topic with modern anime fans: incest. This is not exactly Yosuga no Sora, Oniai, or Koi Kaze for that matter. If anything I would say it is like Revolutionary Girl Utena as it comes up as a delicate plot point and not a fetish point. You mileage may vary but I don’t think it made an otaku pandering film (although I am sure people will argue that point.)

This is far more in the Isao Takahata school of Studio Ghibli movies than anything his father ever made. And that is not a bad thing. This is pleasant movie that starts off energetic and amusing and slowly builds up a sense of tension as we learn more about everyone, and then finally ends with a powerful emotional ending.  This was strong renaissance for Goro Miyazaki. Hopefully he can keep up this trend into the future.

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